A Worn Path Summary

Eudora Welty

A Worn Path

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A Worn Path Summary

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Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” follows the story’s protagonist, Phoenix Jackson, as she travels from the remote village where she lives through the dense forest and over hills to the town where she must go to retrieve medicine for her grandson who has taken ill. Phoenix is an elderly black woman on a long, treacherous journey to the city for reasons that only become clear towards the end of the story. It is December when Phoenix sets out for the city, and she must contend with the bitter cold and with walking across the snow. To maintain her balance, Phoenix walks with a cane, which she also uses to ward off the wild animals stirring in the woods around her.

Even without knowing why Phoenix has undertaken her journey, it is clear from the beginning that she is highly motivated and determined to reach her destination despite any obstacles she may face. The confidence Phoenix exudes flows from her deep sense of spirituality. She travels along without any clear sense of direction, believing God will safely guide her where she needs to go.

Phoenix calls upon assistance from the divine as she encounters a variety of obstacles and dangers arising as she makes her way to the town. As she approaches a creek, she notices that the only means of passage across is by walking along a fallen log. After praying that she be protected from harm, she walks safely across to the other side of the creek. So confident is she in the power of prayer that she traverses the creek with eyes closed. Shortly after, she manages to overcome another potentially dangerous situation when she must pass through a fence of barbed wire.

Although Phoenix is able to negotiate many perils with confidence and grace, she experiences a setback when she is caught off guard by a black dog who appears out of nowhere. Startled, Phoenix falls into a ditch from which she is unable to free herself on her own strength. Thankfully, she is seen by a hunter passing through the area, who lifts her out of the ditch.

We begin to learn more about Phoenix from her interactions with the strangers that she encounters on the way, such as the hunter who helped Phoenix out of the ditch. Although those she meets are helpful, they also give off an air of superiority, poking fun at Phoenix about her age and her race. Many of them make clear that they regard Phoenix as foolhardy for attempting such a journey. The hunter exemplifies such a condescending attitude towards Phoenix in his remark that an “old colored,” by which he means Phoenix, will never pass up an opportunity to see Santa Claus, suggesting that this is the purpose of Phoenix’s journey. The way Phoenix responds insulting remarks like those of the hunter is telling. Phoenix is neither led to doubt whether she has the stamina and strength to complete her mission, nor is she prompted to defend herself against these naysayers, e.g. to explain to the hunter that her objective is to retrieve medicine for her grandson, not to see Santa Claus. Rather, she comports herself with quiet dignity, expressing her gratitude for the assistance she receives, and pressing onward.

Phoenix finally reaches the town and enters a large building. Summoning all her strength in order to climb the stairs, she identifies the the room where she must go by recognizing the gold colored document hanging above the doorway as matching something she had seen in a dream she had. But upon entering the room, she finds that her memory has failed her; she cannot remember what she was supposed to do once she reached her destination. But one of the nurses recognizes Phoenix, and it is revealed that the purpose of her journey was to obtain medicine for her grandson. As before, we see that the folks Phoenix deals with as she completes her mission are often magnanimous, yet at the same time arrogant and relate to Phoenix with a not-so-subtitle air of contempt. But Phoenix does not show signs of being troubled in the least by others’ attitude towards her. She remains focused on her grandson and returning home to him with the medicine he needs.

The story can be viewed ultimately as a presentation of the author’s understanding of what it means to have faith. Within the narrative, we find this theme manifested in at least two distinct ways. First, there is the faith that Phoenix exemplifies by confronting a multiplicity of dangers, emboldened by her spiritual beliefs. Second, there is another kind of faith, one that is discussed much less often than the first. This other aspect of faith concerns the social domain. Just as Phoenix exhibits faith by remaining undaunted in her mission by the dangers that assail her along the way, she also exhibits her faith by staying true to her values in the face of the ridicule and discouragement she is peppered with by those she meets.